High-end wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced to a 10-year-long taste of prison in federal court in Manhattan Thursday for fooling wealthy collectors into paying millions for homemade fakes.
Manhattan U.S. District Judge Richard Berman said he was unimpressed by defense claims that Kurniawan, 37, once lauded as a celebrity connoisseur, should get a light sentence because he only cheated rich people and his imitations were skillful.
"I think this was a very serious economic fraud, or con," Berman told Kurniawan. "Our public needs to know that what we eat and drink is safe and they can trust what's on the label, and not some homemade and potentially unsafe witches' brew."
Kurniawan -- an Indonesian who came to the United States when he was 16, stayed illegally in California after he was denied asylum, and gained repute in wine circles as a prodigy with an exceptional palate -- is believed to be the first person prosecuted in federal court for wine fraud.
Mixing together inexpensive wines in his kitchen to mimic classics and bottling them with fake labels, he swindled some of America's richest people, such as billionaire William Koch. One bottle, a purported 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc, sold for $231,748. Kurniawan was convicted last year.
"Your honor, I am really sorry," Kurniawan told Berman. In addition to the prison sentence, he was ordered to pay $28 million restitution and forfeit $20 million in wine, real estate, art and jewelry, and will be deported when his sentence is over.
Prosecutors wanted Kurniawan to get more than 11 years, and federal sentencing guidelines called for him to get between 108 to 135 months. But Jerome Mooney, his Los Angeles defense lawyer, said that range was far too high.
He told Berman that Kurniawan started counterfeiting not out of greed but because he wanted to fit in with the well-heeled vintage wine crowd, and pointed out that his fakes were really well done, and impressing tasters as classic wines before he was exposed.
"People still got the experience," the lawyer said. "What they got was a replica. It wasn't a bad replica."
Mooney also argued that Kurniawan had performed a service, by stimulating wine industry reforms to combat counterfeiting. "Some good in some ways is coming out of this," he argued.
And the victims, he said, were rich people -- not widows and orphans. "Nobody lost their savings," he said. "Nobody lost their job."
But prosecutor Stanley Okula told Berman that it was "shocking" to argue that sentences should be lower for those who rip off rich people. "Fraud is fraud," Okula said.
After the sentencing, Mooney said he planned to appeal both Kurniawan's conviction and his sentence. "It is disproportionately high," he said.